Q&A: A tricky Social Security plan

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you described the difference between withdrawal and suspension of Social Security benefits. I am 64 and want to take Social Security for two months to get out from under a few one-time bills. I’ll then withdraw my application and pay back the money. Do I understand that I’d have 12 months to pay back the funds? Is this something that can be done every 12 months? I see it as an interest-free short-term loan. Of course this only works if the money is paid back.

Answer: The answer to both your questions is no. You’re allowed to withdraw an application only once, and it must be in the 12 months after you start benefits. Once you submit your withdrawal request, you have 60 days to change your mind. If you decide to proceed, you must pay back all the money you’ve received from the Social Security Administration, including any other benefits based on your work record such as spousal or child benefits, plus any money that was withheld to pay Medicare premiums or taxes. In other words, you have a two-month window to pay back the funds, not 12 months.

If you can’t come up with the cash, you’d be stuck with a permanently reduced benefit. You could later opt to suspend your benefit once you’ve reached your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67. (If you were born in 1956, it’s 66 years and four months.) At that point, your reduced benefit could earn delayed retirement credits that could increase your checks by 8% for each year until the amount maxes out at age 70.

There are a few situations in which starting early and then suspending can make sound financial sense, but a short-term cash need is not typically one of them.

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